Bertie Wooster messed it up for his creator
Official files show that the delay before P.G. Wodehouse was knighted was not just down to his wartime broadcasts
THAT P.G. Wodehouse had to wait so long for recognition as a leading British author was not entirely the result of his wartime broadcasts on German radio to America. His enduring creation, Bertie Wooster, bears part of the blame.
Wodehouse, who became a US citizen, was eventually knighted at the age of 93, only weeks before his death in 1975, and only after the intervention of Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, in a long internal wrangle over whether the great comic writer was worthy of honour.
Papers released by the Public Record Office yesterday disclosed that when Wodehouse was first recommended for a Companion of Honour in 1967, Sir Patrick Dean, who was then British Ambassador in Washington, raised strong objections on the grounds that the author had done nothing for British interests in the US to warrant a decoration, and that to give him one would revive the controversy over his wartime radio work. “It would also give currency to a Bertie Wooster image of the British character which we are doing our best to eradicate,” Sir Patrick added, pointedly.
As the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, Wodehouse was widely acknowledged as one of the finest comic writers in English literature, but his wartime record has always cast a shadow over his reputation. For more than two decades after the Second World War he was repeatedly blocked from receiving a knighthood because of deep misgivings in Whitehall.
Wodehouse was in France in 1940 when the country fell. He was captured by the Germans and taken to Berlin where he naively recorded five interviews, which were subsequently broadcast by German radio to America. Although his comments were dismissed later by the writer George Orwell as “a few rather silly but harmless remarks by an elderly novelist”, they nevertheless rendered him liable for prosecution for treason. At the end of the war — after a brief period of internment by the French — he moved to the United States, acquiring dual American nationality.
Wodehouse’s name arose again for an honour in 1971 and Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, who was then Foreign Secretary, cabled Lord Cromer, the new Washington Ambassador, saying that the Government was “minded to bury the wartime hatchet”. But Cromer stamped on the suggestion as firmly as his predecessor, cabling back that the writer’s wartime activity “is not forgotten in this country”. Meanwhile, civil servants in London, aware of the campaign to honour Charlie Chaplin, were looking into the Wodehouse case. Stuart Milner-Barry, of the Civil Service Department, wrote to the head of protocol at the Foreign Office. “Rather the same sort of difficulties arise over him as do in the case of Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward. My own view on this one, too, would be that it was time to bury any remaining hatchets unless the evidence against Wodehouse is more incontrovertible than I believe it to be.”
Milner-Barry concluded: “But I do not know whether there is any precedent for giving an honorary award to a natural-born Englishman who has abandoned his British citizenship.”
The Foreign Office was cool. “British honours are not conferred on foreign nationals as a tribute to their distinction in a particular field,” a senior official replied. “The doctrine is that such persons should look to their own head of state for recognition of their achievements.”
But Lees Mayall, the Foreign Office head of protocol, discovered two things in Wodehouse’s favour. He looked up Hansard for 1941, when Wodehouse’s broadcasts were raised in the Commons, and concluded that they were not the most serious of offences, having been prompted more by naivety than malice.
Mayall had also seen a 1945 article by Orwell, who had suggested that any attempts to hound him would drive him into permanent residence in America.
More importantly, Mayall found that although Wodehouse had become a US citizen, there was no record of his having renounced his British nationality. The Foreign Office still said it could not recommend Wodehouse.
The issue was settled when Mr Wilson came to power and decided to award Wodehouse a knighthood. He was listed in the same 1975 New Year Honours as Chaplin.
James Callaghan, Wilson’s Foreign Secretary, believed Chaplin to be much the more deserving of the two nominees. “Wodehouse put himself out of court during the war,” he told his officials. Within a matter of weeks, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse of Long Island, New York, was dead.